Sharing mothering experiences past and present
Judging by the media coverage breastfeeding gets, a lot of people do want to talk about it. Just mention the word and it’s more than likely that a passionate debate will start. It’s a subject which both polarises people and stirs intense emotions – which isn’t so surprising. The decision about how to feed a baby is so personal and so much a part of our mothering experience.
Statistics show that while around 80% of women initiate breastfeeding, the drop-off rate is rapid. Nine out of ten women who stop in the first few weeks would have liked to continue for longer. That is a lot of women who started to breastfeed and ended up bottle feeding before they wanted to. Women who probably knew the things breastfeeding could offer and may now feel sad and angry that it didn’t work out as they had hoped. No wonder any debate stirs so much response.
It might not be much comfort to know that this is not a new development. While breastfeeding is a biological norm and has ensured the continuation of the human race since our beginnings it is most probable that some women have always had difficulties.
In the past, however, women were also surrounded by other breastfeeding mothers. They grew up seeing it as a natural part of mothering and understood how it worked. When problems arose there was always someone at hand to help. Sometimes a woman would ‘lend’ her newly delivered sister her older baby to help get her supply going, while she nursed the newborn with her plentiful supply. If nursing really didn’t work, or a mother didn’t want to do it, then another woman would nurse the baby.
Self-help in the 16th Century
We tend to think of ‘self-help’ manuals as a modern trend but history is full of books telling parents how to raise their children. Feeding has always been the main concern in infant care. Back in 1578 Lorenzo Gioberti, a Montepellier physician, wrote a book called De gli errori populari (On popular Errors) in which he decided to denounce popular errors about medicine1. He decried the use of wet nurses and asserted that maternal milk affected the child positively.
He went on to say that the mother’s humour balance would be most similar to the baby’s, and the infant would have adjusted to his mother’s characteristics over the preceding months. Gioberti reminded readers that nursing created a special bond between mother and child. He also said that with the milk an infant also absorbs the personality traits of the person who nurses him and ‘all mothers of good character should pass this blessing onto their child’.
He also adds some advice for husbands saying ‘you do not like your sleep disturbed but this will pass’. He warns that some men want to bring a wet nurse into the house not out of concern for their child or wife, but to create an opportunity for an extra liaison!
In 1748 a doctor called William Cadogan wrote Essay on Nursing. At first an army physician, then in private practice, he became interested in paediatrics, which was then considered a difficult branch of medicine. He believed strongly in the power of ‘Nature’ and had a lot of ideas which went against the mainstream views of the day. He attacked swaddling and said that feeding should be a natural process. ‘Thus far nature, if she not interrupted, will do the whole business perfectly well’.
In the late 18th century “Rousseaumania” was all the craze in England, following the translation of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “child-rearing” manual Emile. It was a story of how Rousseau would have educated an imaginary boy and he echoed Cadogan’s views on abolishing swaddling clothes, breastfeeding, and allowing an infant the freedom to lay and kick and play in loose fitting clothing 2 .
The Lost Art of Breastfeeding
Somewhere along the way women seemed to lose their confidence in breastfeeding. Babies were still born expecting to breastfeed and milk production still kicked in. If a mother didn’t breastfeed the only real choice had been for another woman to wet-nurse. However once infant formula started to be promoted, in the late 1800s, as the ‘modern’ and ‘better’ way to feed more and more women found themselves bottle feeding, either by choice or because they hadn’t got the support they needed.
In the US in the 1950s the breastfeeding initiation rate was 20%. La Leche League began in 1956 when seven women who had breastfed (not always at the first attempt) heard so many other women saying they had wanted to do it but hadn’t been ‘able to’. They decided to start a small group to help support local women. They had to call their group La Leche (the milk) because in the 50s even saying ‘breast’ in polite company or putting it in print in a meeting notice was unheard of.
The Heart of La Leche League
One of the Founders of LLL, Marian Tompson, says in her book “Passionate Journey, My Unexpected Life” that she wasn’t trying to start a revolution with the speeches she gave or the choices she made. She just wanted to provide what she knew in her heart was best for her and her babies. She wasn’t yet aware of how many other women wanted the same things.
The fact that over the last 60 years LLL has spread to over 60 countries in the world, helping thousands of women to do what felt right for them, shows just how much mothers needed that support. They didn’t want to be told by health professionals what they should do, they wanted accurate information so they could make their own informed decisions. That is at the heart of La Leche League.
1 How to do it, Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians. Rudolpoh M. Bell. UCP, 1999
2 Dream Babies, Child Care from Locke to Spock. Christina Hardyment. Frances Lincoln 1983